How has reality television influenced contemporary Chinese performance culture?

Abstract:

Through this paper, I will be analyzing the sociocultural and political influences, which have contributed to the success of reality television in China. This new form of interactive entertainment only recently emerged as a replica of American Idol in the United States, called Supergirl (also known as 超级女生) debuting in 2005. This paper will explore the talent based reality television genre and its popularity through its development of a “democratic entertainment”[i] model and influence in creating a new low cost economic market in China. I will also be conducting a similar case study about The Voice of China (also known as 中国好声音), China’s largest and most-viewed reality singing talent show at the moment.

Reality Television’s Appeal: 

China’s youth has been playing an increasing role within China’s sociocultural and political reformation. Looking back at the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and the June Fourth incident, students throughout Beijing protested against the Communist Party in search for democratic values, such as social equality and freedom of speech.[ii] Chairman Deng Xiaoping combated these protests with violence and imprisonment. Many participants and leaders involved, mainly students attending universities in Beijing, were also assigned to small-scale occupations away from cities of high political involvement and opportunity. The voice that the nation’s children were so desperately searching for was then, immediately and dramatically shot down. Aside from the devastating tragedies of the Tiananmen Square protests and the June Fourth incident, the people of China did not refrain from voicing their perspectives. Instead, many utilized performance culture to indirectly project their sense of repression.

From the development of Hip-Hop to the expansion of reality television in China, they both provide their audiences with a sense of power or influence. Although the Chinese people may not be able to directly protest for freedom, many illustrate their yearning through the emotions depicted in the lyrics of their songs.[iii] Similarly, reality singing television shows, such as Supergirl and The Voice of China, offer its viewers the ability to partake in the outcome of the competition by voting for their favorite contestants. “Democracy [ultimately] becomes a commodity consumed and produced by the audiences themselves,” factoring into the rising market of Democratic Entertainment. (Jian & Liu 530)

The sense of opportunity also plays a major contributing factor towards the success of programs such as Supergirl and The Voice of China because it allows its audience to grow with the participants throughout each season. At the beginning of each competition, we see a preview about each contestant, containing background information and their history with music. These previews are often times depicted in ways that encourage its audience to feel for the competitors. They are portrayed as ordinary people who have been given this grand opportunity to express and pursue their passion for music on stage. Viewers will then follow their idols through the competition towards popularity, as they actively take part in their success by voting for them week after week. While this promotes democratic values, one in which Chinese people is not granted with, it also gives its audience a sense of possibility. Seeing the average student, father, or worker achieve this level of success through these competition television shows, we feel a sense of opportunity; “the fulfillment of Cinderella dreams for the contestants, [the viewers] themselves may experience a projected fulfillment of their own dreams.” (Jian & Liu 537) In a nation of social and political suppression, performances like these are even more appealing because they allow people escape.

Empowerment: The Voice of China

The judges showing their fighting to “WANT” the performing singer. Their appreciation empowers the contestant and the audience.

One particular winning aspect about The Voice of China is that it empowers its contestants and audiences in that the judges judge solely on their voice. Like the Western version of the reality television show, the judges are unable to see the participant until they are confident that they want to mentor that singer, based on the song they perform during the first round.

One contestant that I particularly felt for was Tian Yuan (田园) because she sat aside people’s perception about her curvy physique to perform on a stage that only judged her by her voice.[iv] As Na Ying (那英), one of the judges on the show, turned around in the middle of her performance, she looked completely shocked to see the singer standing before her. People often misattribute others’ character, personality, and talent based on their physical appearance. (Video: Skip to 1:00:00)

The more attractive someone is, the more of an advantage they have, especially in an industry that places such a large emphasis on appearance. Although Tian may not look like the typical celebrity, observing the judges’ comments and words of encouragement toward her, made me feel like there was hope. In our superficial society, there are still people out there who care about true talent. As the audience, seeing credible entertainers support hard work and persistence, we also feel empowered because we are able to reflect these ideals to our personal lives. Especially with China’s long-standing resistance against individuality and freedom, this provides its people with an indirect sense of independence.

Criticism

As Supergirl became increasingly more popular in China, the government became progressively more defensive, eventually leading to the show’s cancellation in 2011, after five successful seasons. The show was officially cancelled because it aired ninety minutes over the initial ninety-minute limit, according to the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television (the SARFT). Even aside from this specific instance, the government believed that such meaningless reality television shows was taking away air time for more useful information such as those that promote ethics and moral values.

As reality television shows, like Supergirl, became more popular in the Chinese entertainment industry, exceeding even that of China’s state-run CCTV program, the communist government felt their influence inferior to Western ideals.[v] Referring back to one of the main appeals about these competition shows, democratic entertainment, the People’s Republic of China (the PRC) felt unsafe about allowing their people to participate in democratic activity. As viewers become more socialized towards western habits, such as the involvement of the text message voting system, government officials became afraid that this would escalate towards greater conformities.

While Supergirl and The Voice of China are structured like the popular Western reality television American Idol and The Voice, the takeaways are extremely different in that we are primed with different backgrounds and cultural standings. Supergirl and The Voice of China became increasingly popular due to the freedom and influence these shows provided them with. The goal of reality television in Western cultures is to profit, but the success of Supergirl and The Voice of China comes from the ability to express personal freedom, a much more terrifying influence in comparison to some monetary value.

An Economic Perspective

Reality television created a new market within the entertainment industry in China. Its low cost production has the ability to reach a growing consumer base, one in which the music industry was suffering from at the time due to large amount of piracy etc.). Instead of selling records produced by famous people, reality television focuses on a win-win strategy in which Supergirl or The Voice of China participants generate the show’s popularity through their personal stories and talent while the station provides the winner with a record contract.[vi] In comparison to creating a show with already well-known singers, a contract is a very small price to pay. Reality television programs also minimize cost towards advertisement through their audience.

Audience promotion amongst peers.

Due to the audience’s active participation within the rounds of competition, many are more actively willing to take part in promoting their idols’ image in fan clubs, online forums, etc. Through these mediums, fans are unknowingly advertising for television agencies, saving them a lot of money.

The process of voting through text message has also generated large profits for phone companies, especially since cell phone plans are set up very differently than in the United States in which most people pay per text message. There have even been more extreme cases in which children ask their parents to purchase multiple phone numbers (or SIM cards) to vote multiple times in support of their participant. [vii] Since this market has become such a large-scale activity, to the point where the communist government felt the need to intervene, as stated earlier, it is ultimately benefiting the economy.

Conclusion:

Due to China’s history of social and political suppression, its people have sought out reality television programs such as Supergirl and The Voice China as a way to express personal freedom and independence. The simple act of being able to vote provides its viewers with a sense power. The Western ideals about embracing our uniqueness and credible performers’/mentors’ sincere encouragement allows its audience to feel empowered, a sense of possibility and opportunity. Although they prime us with self-worth, the government criticizes its Western background, ultimately leading them to cancel Supergirl and minimalize the majority of reality channels outside of prime time timeframes. Aside from political criticism, shows like Supergirl and The Voice of China have created a whole new marketing model for China’s entertainment industry. At a low cost, these programs provide marginally high revenues, ultimately improving China’s economy as a whole. Reality competition television provided the Chinese people an outlet for suppressed freedom and created a new market in China’s entertainment industry.

[1] “’Democratic entertainment’ commodity and unpaid labor of reality TV: a preliminary analysis of China’s Supergirl.” Jian, Miaoju & Liu Chang-de

[1] “China: A Century of Revolution, Part 3.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=viGtNWVQApk

[1] Moskowitz, M. L. 2010. “Chapter 3: Hybridity and Its Discontents.” In Cries of Joy, Songs of Sorrow: Chinese Pop Music and its Cultural Connotations

[1] 中国好声音 (The Voice of China); http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gFFcAcEf0p0 (1:00:00)

[1] Jacobs, Andrew, 2011. “Popularity May Have Doomed Chinese TV Talent Show”; “http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/world/asia/popularity-may-have-doomed-chinese-tv-talent-show.html

[1] “’Democratic entertainment’ commodity and unpaid labor of reality TV: a preliminary analysis of China’s Supergirl.” Jian, Miaoju & Liu Chang-de. Page 533

[1] “’Democratic entertainment’ commodity and unpaid labor of reality TV: a preliminary analysis of China’s Supergirl.” Jian, Miaoju & Liu Chang-de. Page 524